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Worth a Mea Culpa? 

The House and Senate leadership could change radically, with no one from the New Orleans area getting a position of substance.

Henry of Navarre, first of the French Bourbon kings, converted to Catholicism in exchange for the peaceful surrender of Paris -- and with it the unification of France -- in the summer of 1593. "Paris is worth a Mass," he mused. He was right; seven months later he was crowned King Henry IV.

Perhaps Louisiana Senate President John Hainkel was thinking of Henry when he offered to bolt the GOP in exchange for keeping his post under the administration of Democratic Gov.-elect Kathleen Blanco, who just beat Hainkel's candidate for governor. Hainkel pretty much offered to be Blanco's dog if she would let him stay on as Le President of the Upper Chamber.

Ah, but Blanco apparently has higher standards than the old European Catholic League. "Mais non," she demurred.

That's not just bad news for Hainkel; it's potentially disastrous for New Orleans as well.

For most of the last 30 years, southeastern Louisiana -- and the metro area in particular -- was well represented in the House and Senate leadership. Senate presidents included Mike O'Keefe and Hainkel of New Orleans and Sammy Nunez of St. Bernard. House Speakers included Hainkel, John Alario of Westwego and Hunt Downer of Houma (who was born in New Orleans).

New Orleans-area legislators also populated the "money committees" -- House Appropriations and Ways & Means, as well as Senate Finance and Revenue & Fiscal Affairs -- in large numbers, often as chair or vice chair.

The word out of Baton Rouge last week was that the House and Senate leadership could change radically, with no one from the New Orleans area getting a position of substance. Things appear to be settled in the House, where Rep. Joe Salter of Florien (in Sabine Parish) has emerged as the front-runner for the speaker's job. Rep. Sharon Broome of Baton Rouge is said to be the favorite for speaker pro tempore.

In the Senate, rival Democratic camps have bogged down the process of choosing a new president. Business folk favor Sen. Noble Ellington of Winnsboro, while trial lawyers and rural health care advocates like Sen. Don Hines of Bunkie, who is a physician. One of them is likely to emerge as the leading contender in the coming days, and Blanco reportedly was tilting toward Hines late last week.

So where does that leave the New Orleans area?

There is talk of making Sen. Diana Bajoie of New Orleans the Senate's president pro tempore. That's nice, but it's sort of like being first runner-up to Miss America. Unless the Chosen One dies, poses for Playboy or goes to jail, there ain't much point in it. The job carries no authority and little symbolism beyond looking good on somebody's résumé.

The next level of power in both houses resides in the money committees. In the divided Senate, there is talk that Hainkel may release his votes to Ellington and get the Finance Committee chairmanship as a consolation prize. That committee handles (read: re-writes) the annual operating budget after it comes over from the House. The other Senate prize is Revenue & Fiscal Affairs, which gets to vote on taxes -- and, as a sweetener, the annual capital outlay bill (read: pork).

In the House, the operating budget starts in the Appropriations Committee. Several names have surfaced with regard to chairing Appropriations -- Reps. John Smith of Leesville (just south of Florien), Francis Thompson of Delhi and Edwin Murray of New Orleans. Murray, of course, would be a local favorite, and he has great relationships with lawmakers of all ethnic, geographic and political persuasions. In recent years, he has emerged as a leader in the Legislative Black Caucus and among New Orleans lawmakers.

Right now, he's probably the city's best hope of holding on to any kind of stroke in Baton Rouge -- either as chair of Appropriations or of Ways & Means, which handles taxes and capital outlay. If Murray strikes out, the city and the region may be shut out altogether.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ray Nagin needs to patch things up with Blanco after endorsing her opponent in the runoff. She has a thorough grasp of tourism's economic importance, so that would be a good place to start thawing their icy relations. Hizzoner ought to invite her to get on board his cruise-ship terminal expansion plan, not to mention his goal of expanding the airport. He might even consider following Hainkel's lead and letting her call both ideas her own.

If Paris was worth a Mass, New Orleans is certainly worth a mea culpa.


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